Illinois’s Hidden Gem: Shawnee National Forest – East

When people think of the state of Illinois outside of Chicago they think of cornfields, cornfields, and well, more cornfields. They’re not entirely wrong either, the Land of Lincoln doesn’t offer much in the terms of scenery outside of a few small pockets. Most people, even those living in Illinois, don’t realize there’s a national forest with beautiful features in the far southern portion of the state with a total area of around 415 square miles. You can see the area covered by the Shawnee National Forest in the map below. il-map

Shawnee offers well over 250 miles worth of hiking/walking/horse trails, the most well known is the 160 mile River to River trail that spans from the eastern edge of the forest on the Ohio River all the way to the west part of the park that border the Mississippi River. I’m going to cover some of my favorite hikes in this post and the following post. In this post I’ll cover areas east of State Highway 37, the next post will cover areas west of State Highway 37.

Garden of the Gods


Likely the most recognizable in Shawnee, both by name and by photos, but not to be mistaken with the place of the same name in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area includes 3300 acres of densely forested, rolling hills, however 320 million years ago the entire area would have been beneath a sea. Large, powerful rivers deposited sand and silt at the edge of the sea and slowly the sea retreated to the south. Over time the pressure turned the sand and silt deposits to stone and then erosion washed away that which was softer, leaving only the harder sandstone rock outcroppings.

Sign at Garden of the Gods explaining the ancient sea that once covered the area.

There are a few different trails totaling about five and a half miles. Observation trail, the most popular, is short at only a quarter mile and easy as the paths are well made and mostly stone. That being said you can venture out on the rock outcroppings and make the hike as easy or difficult, safe or dangerous as you want. There are drops of over 100 feet to the forest below from the rock outcroppings. I’ve personally seen people climb up into areas that they had difficulty getting down from easily as they couldn’t see their footing coming back down. I typically suggest this as a first stop for anyone who hasn’t been to Shawnee before. It’s about a 50 minute drive, East-Southeast of Marion, Illinois. The address is Picnic Road, Herod, IL and there’s also Pharaoh’s campground if you feel so inclined to stay the night. The best time of year, in my opinion, is October when the leaves have changed as the rich, varying colors of the trees below made the views that much more profound.



On the banks of the Ohio River at the far southeastern part of Illinois, there’s Cave-In-Rock.  There’s an interesting history around Cave-In-Rock and the town of the same name just north of the river banks. The cave was originally discover by French explorer M. de Lery, who found it in 1739 and called it “caverne dans Le Roc“. About 60 years later, in the 1790’s, it became a hot spot for criminals including counterfeiters, robbers, river pirates, and murderers. At one point the cave served as a tavern, gambling den, brothel, and criminal refuge. Gullible travelers would be led to the cave and robbed and murdered. For more interesting outlaw history on Cave-In-Rock you can click here. Criminal activity ran up into the 1830’s and 40’s, but it soon became an aid in the nation’s westward expansion. The cave served as a place safe from the elements to stop and  and in 1929 the State of Illinois acquired 64 acres surrounding the area and turned it into a state park. It’s since been expanded to over 200 acres. The mouth of the cave is 55′ wide and nearly as tall, with the cliff face itself over 100′ tall.

View of the Ohio River from inside the cave

When my brother and I visited it was an evening in May and the area was fairly busy. It’s a short hike up and then down the cliff face to the river bank and then a short walk around to the cave. The scale of the cave is impressive and the fact that wind and water could carve such a cave is an impressive feat in itself. I would guess it’s a few hundred feet deep, with a “chimney” sorts toward the back that allows light in toward the back as there’s no artificial lighting in the cave, just that coming in from mouth of the cave and the “chimney”.

Looking toward the back of the cave

Burden Falls

img_9600-1024x684First off, the photos for Burden Falls aren’t mind, they’re borrowed from Gary Marks and his website where he’s got a lot of great photos from the Shawnee National Forest. I have been here and have taken photos, but mine were in the winter when it was pretty dry and don’t capture the beauty of the area appropriately like his do.

Burden Falls is a 35′ water fall and also has an upper fall with smaller drops of 5′-10′. Story time: The first time I visited Burden Falls was with my brother and father, so we weren’t exactly sure where it was. We knew we were getting close and saw a small parking area with a truck already parked there so we assumed it was the parking for Burden Falls. We spent a good hour and a half wander through unmarked paths looking for the falls, swearing we could hear the waterfall in the distance. Finally we gave up and returned to the Jeep. Not another half mile down the road we came across the falls. You can see the Upper Falls area from the road and part of the road you drive across has an area where water runs across it, so don’t be fooled like we were, drive until you see it and you’ll find parking.

Upper Falls at Burden Falls.

After parking you’ll quickly come across the Upper Falls, at first we thought this was it, but a quick walk back a little further and you’ll find the main falls. There’s two ways to get down to the bottom of the falls where the creek is. There’s a longer way around the rim of the valley or you can climb down a steep slope with large boulders. You can see the path in the first photo, as long as there isn’t a huge rush of water coming down it’s not too difficult to traverse. After climbing down you’ll be at the base of the waterfall near Burden creek. The waterfall is framed beautifully by this intimate valley you find yourself it. It’s a beautiful, wooded area that’s easy to walk around. The slideshow are my photos from my trip with my dad and brother.

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After checking the area out around the water fall and the creek follow the creek away from the waterfall for several hundred yards until you can go left up the hill and back where you came. You’ll walk right next to the top of the waterfall and back to the parking area.

Bell Smith Springs

Devil’s Backbone

Bell Smith Springs is a hidden gem of Shawnee. 8 miles of interconnect trails weave through the park with a few interesting land formations such as Devil’s Backbone, Boulder Falls, and a natural rock bridge. Over 700 different species of fern and plants exist in Bell Smith Springs. The ancient river system that deposited sand at Garden of the Gods 320 million years ago also deposited sand here, which eventually turned to stone. Erosion caused from flowing water eventually carved out the canyon at Bell Smith Springs, water continues to flow through the canyon today leaving a slow, but forever changing landscape.

Devil’s Backbone are the large rocks you see in the middle of the creek. At some point over the years a large section of the canyon walls fell into the creek. There’s a natural bridge at Bell Smith Springs, while it doesn’t stand out in the landscape like the natural bridge at Pomona (covered in the next post), it is quite impressive. The bridge spans nearly 100′ at the top with an elevation of 40′ above the ground below. It’s fairly narrow, but you can walk side by side with someone and not fall off. Another interest feature is a metal rung ladder built into a cliff face. Likely done by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the ladder leads up to the top of the canyon. Don’t fret if heights aren’t your thing, there’s another route to the top near by that can be used.


The last unique treat is Boulder Falls:


Okay, I lied, the last treat as you exit the park (if you go a certain route), is a beautiful stone staircase that goes in a crevice of the sandstone canyon. The steps are uneven and steep (you’ll break a sweat if you don’t take breaks), but they’re beautifully done.

The stairs lead you right back to the parking lot.

Trigg Tower


Trigg Tower is an old Forest Service fire tower. It was used to watch for forest fires when conditions were dry and today’s technologies didn’t exist. It’s one of the tallest observation points in Shawnee and provides quite the view from the top of the tower.

View from Trigg Tower

While on your way to Trigg tower you should pass Lou Dean’s Lookout, there’s a small pull off off the side of the country road, just big enough for a couple cars. It’s definitely worth the stop to take some photos, not much unlike the ones from Trigg Tower.

View from Lou Dean’s Lookout

No hiking paths at Trigg, just the parking lot and tower, but it is worth a stop if you’re hiking in the area.

Heron Pond


Heron Pond is a unique wetlands and nature preserve located in the Cache River State Park near Belknap, IL. The pond is 75 acres in area and dominated by Cyprus trees, some a millennia old. Heron Pond is one of the northernmost wetlands in the United States and even Illinois natives don’t realize such a place exists in the Land of Lincoln. The wetlands creation was due to flooding and river course change and loose top soil was continuously carried away. Unfortunately the wetlands aren’t nearly as large as they used to be. In 1818 (the year Illinois became a state), the area was drained so that the timber could be extracted and used. 90% of the wetlands were affected and some never returned to the way the used to be. The hike is fairly short at 1.5 miles, but there’s a lot to see along the way, one of the most impressive features of Heron Pond is the State Champion Cherry Bark Oak. The tree is 22′ in circumference and reaches 100′ in height. In terms of circumference it’s one of Illinois’s 5th largest trees according to the “Big Tree List” compiled by the University of Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science program.

The hike is really easy and nearly flat outside of the walk down from the parking area.

Jackson Falls


Jackson Falls is a 60′ waterfall in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest. It’s a favorite spot for rock climbers and in the warmer months you can find thrill seekers jumping from the top of the sandstone bluff into the water below. As for hikers the falls is a short quarter mile walk from the trail head to the top of the falls. Access to the bottom of the falls is a little longer with a round trip hike approaching 3.25 miles. The trails are well marked and taken care of so it’s a pretty easy hike.

These are just the beginning! There will be another post on Friday with the sights to see in the western portion of Shawnee, which features my favorite couple of spots.

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